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Cannondale Topstone Lefty 1 review

17 Feb 2021
Verdict:

Great fun to take almost anywhere off-road, but lacks overall versatility that defines a true gravel bike

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
Superb front suspension • Retains performance feel • Clean aesthetic
Against 
Suspension adds weight and cost

It was only a little over two years ago that Cannondale launched its Topstone range of gravel bikes. What started as a fairly modest entry-level aluminium offering has since been joined by two new and quite different versions.

First came a carbon Topstone, which brought with it Cannondale’s new Kingpin rear suspension. Now comes this dual-suspension version, built around the same Kingpin-equipped carbon frame but with an all-new Lefty Oliver fork plus 650b wheels as standard.

But wait – does anyone remember the Slate? If so, do you see the similarities? For those who are unfamiliar, the Slate was something of a misfit bike that Cannondale released back in 2015.

At the time people didn’t really get it. Gravel was still an emerging category and the Slate looked like nothing else on the market when it came out. It had (wait for it) 650b wheels, which then were practically unheard of, and a unique-looking single-sided Lefty suspension fork with 30mm of travel.

Five years on it’s almost as if Cannondale has reimagined that concept here, which goes to show how far ahead of the curve the Slate actually was.

Buy the Cannondale Topstone Lefty 1 now

One’s enough

The Topstone Lefty is no less of a head-turning (and potentially divisive) machine. Despite the Lefty Oliver fork being less visually jarring in this single crown guise (compared to the original’s triple-clamp) it still looks a bit bonkers to most people. But it’s not some kind of gimmick.

A single-sided fork has a lot going for it from a suspension engineering standpoint. The number of seals creating undesirable friction is halved, fewer parts are subjected to wear and tear, plus of course it weighs less. But its best asset is the increased lateral and torsional stiffness on offer.

 

That seems to defy logic when you look down at the front wheel as you ride. It’s hard to believe the wheel has enough support from just a single contact point, but the fact is it works. And not just well… brilliantly.

Two things really stood out for me about the Oliver’s performance. Firstly, it goes about its duties so smoothly.

On the trails I was generally aware that it was working because I wasn’t being battered as much as I otherwise would be, yet I was barely able to sense its movement because it was so sublimely well controlled.

I sometimes needed to check the O-ring to see how much of the fork’s 30mm travel I was actually benefitting from.

Second, there was no obvious bottom-out, no nasty ‘clonk’ to be felt, rather an almost pillowy end to its range that again had me questioning whether it was happening at all. The inner workings required to create such a successful outcome from only a short amount of travel are mind-boggling and are the brainchild of Cannondale’s director of suspension technology, Jeremiah Boobar.

‘We had to really work hard on the damping circuit for this fork,’ he says. ‘We realised quickly that the typical gravel rider isn’t necessarily indoctrinated into setting up suspension or even having it at all, so they are different to mountain bikers with regards to what they expect.

 

We’ve built in a lot more low-speed compression damping and a lot more rebound control to stabilise the fork against pedalling-induced movement.

‘The aim was to keep the fork sitting high in its travel. That was important as we only have 30mm to play with. The spring curve was a key piece of the puzzle. We gave it a heavy ramp to stop it moving through the travel too quickly.’

Buy the Cannondale Topstone Lefty 1

Achieving balance

What that translates to when you’re riding the bike is a really well-balanced feel. In my review of the sans-Lefty Topstone Carbon I gave it high praise for its vertical-flex-based Kingpin rear suspension.

A quick recap of how it works: a pivot in the seat tube allows the entire back of the frame – the rear stays, seat tube, even the rear of the top tube – to flex like a series of connected leaf-springs, facilitating around 30mm of deflection from the rear wheel moving up and the saddle moving down.

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The Kingpin’s adeptness at smoothing out rear-end chatter off-road remains a useful part of this bike’s arsenal too, but where the previous version suffered from a slightly mismatched feel without any help offered up front, the Lefty Oliver brings the bike into equilibrium.

In dual-suspension guise the Topstone now feels like a complete package and an extremely capable beast.

 

The 650b wheels are the right choice too. With that extra bit of tyre width and volume, the smaller-diameter hoops better suit the style of riding that this bike teases you into.

There are two ways to view the benefits of having suspension: it can either help you push into more extreme riding or it can help you enjoy familiar riding environments in greater comfort. I fall into the former camp.

The Topstone’s playful agility encouraged me to push its limits (and my own) and I found myself picking rougher lines on trails and seeking out ever tighter and twistier bits of singletrack.

I especially enjoyed those times when I’d round a corner to be faced by exposed tree roots or rocks and could afford to sit back and let the combination of tyres and suspension suck it up and spit me safely out the other side.

There was a fun factor about the Topstone Lefty I haven’t experienced on any other gravel bike.

But here’s the thing: despite coming home from various outings on this bike with a smile on my face, I did still find myself questioning whether I could own it as my only bike – a key question in judging any gravel bike’s versatility.

The answer is: probably not. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want one. I most certainly would, but I’d need to own another gravel bike as well.

Buy the Cannondale Topstone Lefty 1 here

If you ranked your riding habits on a scale of 1-10, 10 being almost always off-road with a good chunk of time on trails you would struggle to define as merely ‘gravel’, you’d need to be a seven or above before the Topstone Lefty was the bike for you.

Otherwise its benefits could become largely redundant. Of course, that’s assuming you can get your head around buying a bike with only one fork leg in the first place, even if it means you never need to remove the front wheel to fix a flat.

Buy a nearly new Cannondale Topstone Left 1 from Tredz now

Spec

Frame Cannondale Topstone Lefty 1
Groupset Sram Force eTap AXS
Brakes Sram Force eTap AXS
Chainset >Sram Force eTap AXS, X01 Eagle eTap AXS rear derailleur
Cassette X01 Eagle 10-50t cassette
Bars Hollowgram Save System
Stem Hollowgram Save System
Seatpost Hollowgram Save Carbon
Saddle Fabric Scoop Shallow Race
Wheels Hollowgram 23 Carbon, WTB Venture and Byway 650x47mm tyres
Weight 9.47kg
Contact cannondale.com

All reviews are fully independent and no payments have been made by companies featured in reviews

Price: 
£6,600